However, the increasing prominence of content marketing among corporations is relatively recent. This is due to the fact that when it comes to content marketing, the abundance of digitally based creation and distribution platforms available has lead to the removal of many previously existing barriers to entry.
While this development is as positive for startups as it is for any type of company, organization or person, it doesn’t mean that content marketing is necessarily any easier to master. In fact, executing a content marketing strategy effectively is a big challenge for startups. While a solid content marketing program can be a deciding factor in signing that crucial LOE and/or reaching the next funding stage, a poorly conceived one that sends the world the wrong messages can hobble a venture’s chances.
After consulting with some of the most well respected content marketing professionals who conveyed some practical advice on the topic, we learned the following tips:
- Start early. You don’t need to wait until you have a product to launch a content marketing program;
- Consider multiple delivery mediums. Whatever fits into your team’s capabilities and beyond;
- Don’t fixate on writing;
- Look for content and SEO synergies.
For this article, we interviewed the following people:
One of the major objectives of content marketing, according to the Content Marketing Institute, is “driving profitable customer action.” It seems fair to then question why startups…who may be far from identifying their customer bases, let alone profitable actions…should pursue content marketing at the early stages?
Joe Pulizzi, Founder, Content Marketing Institute: “Content marketing is especially important to startups because the content creation and distribution can play a huge role in helping to define the customer base. Look at what Hubspot did from the very beginning, as they developed their content around inbound and attracted thousands of prospective clients, who then became customers. Content marketing gives you time to build relationships with prospective customers and build a loyal following, even before the product may be ready.
Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer, MarketingProfs: “Inbound and content marketing is simply the most efficient way of driving awareness and interest in your start-up, and in starting a dialogue with your audience. If you have unlimited resources to spend on marketing, then maybe you don’t need to worry about content. But most companies I know don’t have that luxury.
Dave Toole, CEO, MEDIAmobz: “Content marketing provides a way to understand what communications resonate with prospects and a fast and iterative method of tightening up one’s understanding of the market needs. Of course, it also should increase conversion rates, as email still accounts for 80% of on-line communications.”
DO: Start Early
Consider the following scenario: the founders are all brilliant technologists, with great ideas to share, albeit with collectively less-than-impressive writing ability. From a tactical perspective, would you advise them to try to develop a style and write anyway, or simply focus the content effort around creating visual representations of quantitative data (i.e. infographs, charts, etc.)?
AH: “Content” isn’t just ‘writing.’ Consider a podcast, or a video series, or something else entirely. Charlie King is a well-known golf pro because of his well-known video series – he has something to say, he just chose the right vehicle to carry his message. Of course, I’d argue that the technologist with embarrassingly bad writing skills CAN become a better writer – with a little grit and some basic understanding of what makes for good content, in fact, that’s why I published the book Everybody Writes, because I believe we are all capable of better writing.
DT: “The overall role of marketing itself should be to use content to translate the brilliant ideas and thought leadership from the technology leaders. These days, there are plenty of resources that can help that brilliant technologist to convey their message; video stands out when conveying the personality of the people that stand behind a brand.”
JP: “I think that’s moving too far ahead in the process. First, we want to figure out what the story would be. What’s our sweet spot and what is a content area that we can be the leading informational experts on a subject? Then, we can define what the platform or mediums should be. It could be a video series or podcast series; it doesn’t necessarily need to be a written blog. That said, there are many founders out there who have written hundreds of blog posts and authored best-selling books, and they did so with the help of freelance writers. So, if the startup doesn’t have good writers, it shouldn’t be a stopping point.”
DON’T: Limit the Types of Mediums Used
As Google continues to focus more and more on finding and delivering quality content in search results, how can startups use this to their advantage when it comes to their content?
AH: “It sounds obvious, maybe: focus on quality content as a cornerstone of your marketing. It’s not just Google that wants that… it’s your customers.”
JP: “It’s not rocket science. Consistent, relevant content delivered on a platform that Google can access has been a winning formula for some time. The biggest key to success is to figure out where you can actually become the LEADING informational expert instead of duplicating other companies where it will take longer to break through.”
DT: “They are aggressively recruiting cloud applications and have offered much to those that want to leverage their tools. Keep in mind Google+ still is one of the more B2B-oriented social engagement points, let alone SEO, and don’t forget video is one of the top weighted variables when it comes to optimizing content marketing.”
DO: Consider SEO and Content Marketing Together
It is supposed to take some time to build an audience for content, and while we grasp the potential value content marketing adds, the reality is that startups are usually locked into a perpetually tight race against the calendar – how can this be reconciled? Should content be relegated until it can be done the right way?
JP: “The startup can begin the content marketing process before the product is ready. Yes, it takes time. If the startup wants to build a loyal audience in three months, they can forget it. Anything worth having takes time. But in 9-12 months can a loyal audience be developed? Absolutely. Of course, there are more and more exceptions to this (look at the podcast Serial and how fast that took off). And, it takes a while to find your voice with your content…so relegating it will delay this discovery process as well.”
AH: “There is no ‘right way.’ The important thing is to create a reliable schedule – and stick to it. You don’t need to publish daily. But you do need to publish reliably. Give your audience a chance to anticipate you, just like my parents used to anticipate the Boston Globe in the driveway every morning before 7 AM. You don’t need to be the Globe – the point is that you need to create a schedule.”
DT: “Not necessarily relegated, but acknowledge that it is a slow and lonely on-ramp for many. In fact, marketing technology provider Marketo says it can take over a year to translate and get inertia. Allocate at a rate that doesn’t put too much on this but enables you to get going.”
DON’T: Lose Patience
Building a bit on the previous DON’T, why not create and syndicate a high volume of content that can drive a lot of traffic, even if the conversion rates are low?
DT: “This is of personal preference, but consider that there was more content created in the last 2 days than in the history of the planet. That means there is plenty to grab from, though savvy buyers are looking for more content that actually adds value to their time in front of this content, so we need to respect that and make it original.”
AH: “I wouldn’t worry about the size of the audience. It’s more important to build and nurture an audience that relies on you.”
JP: “Just focus on the methods to build ongoing, loyal subscribers, regardless of conversion rates. If conversion is a big concern (building subscribers), then focus on amazing, downloadable giveaways that require email addresses (to build the database)”
DON’T: Look for Shortcuts
We asked our experts to provide some preferably recent examples/anecdotes of successful content marketing from a tech startup….
JP: “Copyblogger is now one of the fastest growing SaaS companies, and built that through their 200k+ subscribers. Of course, there is Hubspot, and other marketing automation companies like Marketo. BookBub and Buffer are also amazing examples of this. One of the best examples was Mint.com, who was bought out by Intuit.”
AH: “Lattice Engines does a great job. So does Open View Venture Partners – they aren’t a tech company, but they advise and fund those in the tech startup space. Probably my favorite example is Crowd Mics, because they tell their story in a simple yet powerful way. The best content is useful, inspired, and empathic to the needs of your audience. These guys did that beautifully.”
DT: “Slack used content marketing to engage get feedback and rapidly build their business. We have clients that have now made this part of their culture. They go to an event and can predict the flow of content against the stages in the sales funnel and measure content budget down to sales conversions at the bottom of the funnel. More and more are recognizing that this is not only for attracting new clients but keeping those that you have worked so hard to bring on board, or even keeping your in house talent engaged with a sense of importance through content.”